Two of my go-to airplane authors, Zadie Smith and Martin Amis, have recently published novels (to less than enthusiastic reviews) that both depart from their usual styles and take on similar issues of race and class. I don't know if this says anything significant about the "State of England" (as the subtitle of Amis' novel puts it), but I couldn't help comparing them after reading them virtually back-to-back.
Those who know me know that my love for Zadie Smith knows no bounds. As Emily Keeler points out in this excellent piece, Smith's NW is, in a sense, the embodiment of her 2008 essay "Two Paths for the Novel," in which Smith argues for the anti-lyrical avant-garde over the lyrical realism that dominates contemporary literature. NW is fragmented, slippery, almost Modernist in the way it changes style from section to section in order to channel its characters' consciousnesses.
While it is a change in form, it's also a return to the territory of her extraordinary first novel, White Teeth, in that it's set in the working class neighborhood of London where Smith herself grew up, following a set of characters from the same council estate as they make their confused ways in the world. In a recent interview with Diane Rehm, Smith said that the book is mainly about empathy, its obligations and its limits, and empathy for her deeply flawed characters has always been Smith's great strength. They are flawed in the sad ways we all are, and even in the choppier stylistic waters of NW, come across so fully-fleshed that sometimes you want to grab and shake them.
Case in point is a tour-de-force chapter depicting the last day in the life of Felix, a charming ghetto rogue through whom Smith funnels issues of race, class, family obligation and love, as he hustles from his girlfriend's bed to his father's apartment, haggles for a car to fix up for himself, and breaks up with (but also fucks) his on-and-off lover (herself a brilliantly drawn character who could have walked out of a Dickens novel and into the 21st Century.)
One would never look to Martin Amis for empathy. With Amis you want sharp wit, scathing humor, and loathsome characters depicted with silky, venomous prose. Sad to say, Lionel Asbo: State of England doesn't even succeed on Amis' own terms. Its as fragmented and knotty as NW, but feels less like a deliberate departure in style than an early draft. Chunks of time are skipped over with perfunctory transitions as if he couldn't figure out a better way to skip over them and get to the good parts.
Where Smith, with her amazing gift for mimicry, writes convincing dialogues in an incredible array of often subtly different accents and dialects, including various London neighborhoods and classes, Jamaican, French and Irish (it's uncanny how you can always tell exactly what a character's voice sounds like in a Smith novel), Amis barely bothers to even try to capture Lionel's thick London gangster accent, settling instead for the occasional reminder that he uses "f" sounds in place of "th" sounds, and inserts glottal stops for certain consonants.
Amis' portrait of poor and working class London is a comedic Dante's Inferno, a deliberately exaggerated hellscape viewed from the perch of Amis' posh life. This makes for some scabrous comedy and a few funny moments, but for some reason the novel never really takes off. Lionel's tremendous lottery windfall provides Amis the opportunity to lampoon celebrity culture and tabloid journalism, but these are broad targets. It's a bit laughable to me that anyone could claim that its detractors have missed the point of the novel, because Amis' points are so blunt and obvious, and he basically beats on them with a giant, cartoon hammer.
And yet, I stuck with it over an exhausting circuit of planes, airports and hotel rooms. Even bad Amis can keep you turning the pages. But Smith in experimental mode gives you more to chew on.